Why we built our own idea management tool

GENERAL

By
Fran

January 10, 2017


At some point in time, every company that is dealing with innovation on a regular basis has to face the challenge of coming up with an effective way of managing ideas. In spring of 2016, we at WATTx faced that challenge. What we didn’t know back then was that this challenge would lead to us to develop our own process-focused idea management tool.

But let’s start from the beginning: In May 2016, WATTx had been up and running for 5 months. It was an exciting period of learning, experimenting, and testing. Overall, it had been a slightly chaotic time but we felt like we were making progress and that WATTx as a company was starting to take shape. However, there were still a lot of potential ways we could improve.

One of those things that we wanted to improve on was that a lot of potentially interesting ideas came to mind everywhere, in meetings or idea sessions - and sometimes even under the shower. However, there was no way for us to collect those ideas in an effective manner. To fix that issue, we sat down together and agreed on creating an idea collection box in which people would be able to put their ideas. By then, we had developed our 5-step innovation process “From Idea to Reality”, so, to us, it seemed logical to create 5 folders in our shared drive.

We also created a template for a “One-pager” document containing 7 questions that every person wanting to submit an idea had to answer first. To give a few examples: We added questions on what exactly the idea is, who the potential customer might be, and what technology would be needed to make the idea work. On one hand, these questions serve as a guideline for the idea owners in formulating their vision. It also forces them to evaluate their idea and to think about aspects they might have missed.

So far, so good.

With our idea box up and running, as well as a template standardizing the way we wrote down ideas, we thought that we had crossed the finishing line. We were ready to pack our bags and go home. Then, as it often happens in life, we ran into problems.

Evaluating and Rating New Ideas

The first problem we encountered was that our process of evaluating and rating ideas was very cumbersome. We would set-up rating meetings with a diverse group of people in order to assess each idea from a business, technology and customer experience perspective. After printing the one-pagers, we rated every idea by writing numbers on a whiteboard. Afterwards, we calculated the results manually, and eventually sent out a team-wide email including the results.

Looking back, we spent a lot of time working in this, not very sustainable, way.

As of today, we don’t know how exactly a number of ideas were rated and what was discussed during our rating meetings - so, we actually have no thorough records on how and why we took our decisions.

This proved especially painful as we wanted to use our idea ratings as a basis to decide on whether we wanted to start working on an idea, park it and get back to it later, or kill it. Without having records on the rating process, this became very hard, especially after some weeks had passed between rating and deciding on which idea to take on first with respect to our limited resources.

Meet the next stage

The real fun began when we decided to go ahead with an idea. The following list consists of only some of the questions that we would ask ourselves internally at least once a week:

  • Who is working on a particular project?
  • Who does what?
  • Where do we store our findings?
  • How can we maintain transparency in the process and its results?
  • How can we share our findings with the whole team on a regular basis?
  • What if someone else within WATTx has meaningful insights, ideas, or knows interesting and knowledgeable people, that project team members should talk to?
  • ~~Why isn’t the wifi working?~~

We quickly learnt that our idea box left these, and a lot more questions, unanswered. It was a real mess which made it very hard to…

…get an Overview!

“Franziska!”
“How many ideas do we have in the pipeline?”
“Do we have enough resources to work on the next that-freaks-me-out idea?”
“Do you have any idea on how many weeks we already spent on this project?”
“Who is in charge of the UX research for idea XYZ?”
“How does the sprint plan for the prototyping stage look like?”

Well, for most of those questions I didn’t have a good answer. Neither did anyone else within WATTx. Although we had (and still have) a weekly All Hands Meeting that gave everyone a very high-level overview of what was going on within each project, it was more or less impossible to gain a deeper understanding of what exactly was going on without sitting down with and talking to the idea owner and the project lead. And even this didn’t guarantee that one would get the answers they were looking for. That led to us spending far too much time going back and forth on project details instead of working on the actual project.

Track the Effort

For us, it is important to keep track of the results in each stage of our innovation funnel. But this is not enough. We also need to know and keep track of how much time and resources we invest in each project. Without that, it’s very hard to plan ahead, and it’s even harder to decide if we should continue working on an idea or if we are better off killing it as it drains too much of our resources in relation to potential outcome.

Learning From the Past

According to our internal credo, an idea can and should be killed if we do not think that it is worth pursuing it any longer. There are many cases when killing a project makes sense. Among those are:

  • Weak market potential
  • Low customer need
  • Feasibility is an issue
  • Or simply, that an idea doesn’t align with our core principles at WATTx

Additionally, it is crucial to trace, track, and record explanations on why we decided to kill ideas and accompanying projects. If we fail to do so, there’s always the risk that someday someone might come up with a similar idea and we wouldn’t know anymore why we decided to stop working on the original idea.

We Needed to Rethink What We Were Doing

As exemplified above, our concept of collecting ideas in documents and then simply putting these into shared folders had a lot of weaknesses. And as we went on, we discovered that we needed way more functionalities than we ever could have guessed when starting off.

After brainstorming, we came to the conclusion that we needed an idea management process tool. Simple to use, easy to manage, clear in representation. At this point our process-focused idea management tool “Kimbie” came to life.

Click here for the next article on Kimbie. In that article we cover how we developed Kimbie and how it helped us with managing our ideas and our innovation process in detail.